The process of mechanisation in industry and agriculture began in the 18th century but is still running its course. Working people have always tried to control that progress with Luddism as a final act of desperation.
Historically working people have been seen by industrialists as ‘hands’, human accessories to the industrial process doing what the machines (for the time being) could not do. To be robbed of one’s livelihood and to have one’s skills rendered useless is a heartbreaking experience, especially when there is no immediate prospect of acquiring new skills and a new job.
The Luddites were textile artisans who protested against newly developed labour-saving machinery by destroying it from 1811 to 1817.
The industry involved, varied from one part of the country to another, so in Nottinghamshire it was stocking frames; in Yorkshire it was spinning frames and power looms; in the Calder Valley it was shearing frames for cropping and finishing cloth; and in Lancashire handloom workers opposed the powerlooms. The owners of this new machinery threatened to replace artisans with less skilled low-wage labourers, leaving the artisans unemployed
Skilled workers take pride in what they produce, and having to work with a machine that necessarily produces poorer quality goods can be demoralising. The Luddite stocking makers described the goods produced on the new knitting frames as “cobwebs”, and the only way that they could be sold was by exporting them. The Luddites were not against new machinery as such, but saw the threat of smashing it up as the last desperate means of improving their bargaining position with their employers.
It was the economic hardships brought on by the Napoleonic Wars that pushed these workers from hardship to utter destitution. It has been said that more British soldiers were fighting the Luddites than were fighting Napoleon on the Iberian Peninsula.
In one infamous incident in April 1812, wool textile manufacturer William Horsfall of Marsden, an enthusiast of the new machinery, was ambushed and assassinated by Luddites led by George Mellor, who fired the fatal shot.
Attacks like this terrified the authorities and led them to believe there was the potential for revolution. Two Acts of Parliament of 1812, the ‘Frame Breaking Act’ of 1812 and the ‘Malicious Damage Act’, had made machine breaking a capital offence (legislation famously opposed by Lord Byron in the House of Lords). George Mellor, William Thorpe and Thomas Smith were executed for Horsfall's murder in January 1813.
More recent workforces which have seen their hard-won skills - often the product of a seven year apprenticeship - devalued, are print workers by the digital revolution, dockers by containerisation, car makers by robot-controlled machine tools, and the farm hand with the scythe by combine harvesters.
There are some interesting suggestions as to the origins of the word ‘sabotage’:
(1) Derives from the 15th Century in the Netherlands, when workers would throw their sabots (clogs) into the wooden gears of the textile looms to break the cogs, fearing the automated machines would render the human workers obsolete
(2) Derives from the French ‘sabot’ – a wooden shoe or clog via its derivative ‘saboter’ (to knock with the foot or work carelessly). ‘Sabot’ is also the French name for the brake on the horse wagon; it was pressed against the outer rim of a wheel to stop the wagon.
Resources on Luddites held in the Library
The Luddites: three pamphlets 1812-1839 (1972) - Shelfmark: X11
Kevin Binfield, Writings of the Luddites (2004) - Shelfmark: X26
Alan Brooke and Lesley Kipling, Liberty or death: republicans and Luddites 1793 to 1823 (2012) - Shelfmark: C52b
Frank Peel, The rising of the Luddites, Chartists and the Plug-drawers (1895) - Shelfmark: D07
Robert Reid, Land of lost content: the Luddite revolt, 1812 (1986) - Shelfmark: D06
Click here for learning resources about the Luddites